Begat Who Begat Who Begat
(Astrophil Press, 2021)
These two new fictions reveal profound differences, and each in its way deserves applause. Marcus Pactor’s short stories prove kooky yet touching, while Marc Anthony Richardson’s novel has a nightmare impact, a gathering heartbreak. Yet on first riffle, a browser might take these texts for the same. First impressions are weird: an absence of paragraphs in Messiahs, and in Begat Who Begat Who Begat, several pages broken up by visuals, non-representational. Both books keep things brief, highly compressed. They look, in short, “experimental”—though the word seems to mean less and less.
Experiment, in rhetoric and structure and more, has grown common in serious American fiction. To single out any one figure as “a hero of the avant-garde,” as the New Yorker did recently, is to overlook the rising swell on the barricades. Even a bestseller like Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (2012) toys with multiple fonts and viewpoints. Exceptions can always be found, for instance, the meat and potatoes of Marilynne Robinson, but by and large, this season’s menu features nouvelle cuisine. As for the avant-garde, meanwhile, the question shifts. For American artists of an exploratory bent, the challenge is to scout out fresh territory. That’s the discovery, unsettling but satisfying, which these two accomplish.
Marcus Pactor asserts his strangeness in his title, unlike any I’ve encountered, really. Yet its short stack of begats also plays a clever overture for his major themes, calling to mind both family and the Old Testament. The stories that follow contend again and again with the challenges of kids and a wife as well as the quandary of ancient Hebrew identity. The title phrase turns up in one of the shortest stories, “More Fish than Man,” when its narrator rejects “the Christian bible,” unable to make it through the Gospels’ opening genealogy. He thinks they “could have used a better hook,” one of several funny lines in just three pages, but the primary subject is an uneasy family Thanksgiving. The storytelling husband and father wins the unspoken contests of the get-together: his runner wife has a “wondrous body,” and the kid is the best-behaved. Yet he ends the weekend flirting with a man, a stranger.
The outsider sneaks in, in other words: a usurpation. Pactor can bring off the same at greater length, and he’s especially effective in “Do the Fish,” a story in the form of an interrogation. This alludes only faintly to Judaism, but it dwells on another figure once considered a pariah, namely, a trans woman. Formerly a champion quarterback, this Olivia fulfills the respondent-narrator’s “first qualification” in a lover: “they could not make me a two-time father.” A funny line, yes, but one that depends on estrangement and unease. So too, the affair ends with a stinging surprise, and thereafter, asked to “describe… manhood,” the protagonist thinks of a fish out of water: “before the fish quits flopping, you will see too much.”
If turning a man to a sea creature sounds like a fable—well, exactly. The best stories cohere like some classic tale of the shtetl. The few letdowns, on the other hand, look like flotsam and jetsam. But then again, at first riffle, the two freakiest pieces would be those with visuals, holes in one and rectangles in the other, and in both cases I came away impressed. By and large, Pactor strikes a fresh balance between the tribal village and the wider world.
A world that, in Marcus Anthony Richardson, comes across as considerably crueler and bloodier. Messiahs begins on death row, with a desperate and horrifying act of self-mutilation. The ugly news reaches us via another “rower,” one who doesn’t himself lie “crimsoning” on his cell floor, and this man in fact gets out, soon enough. He’s a rare case indeed, first locked up and then sprung by a legal procedure itself pretty horrifying, “the proxy initiative,” the central invention of Richardson’s scorching variation on spec-fic.
The novel’s America doesn’t lie far from our own, its climate catastrophe feels about the same, but five states now offer this “initiative.” Forced through the legislature by “a media mogul-politician, a billionaire,” the new rule allows anyone facing execution to be replaced⎯ and executed, if it comes to that⎯ by a blood relation, “a secondhand messiah.”
The law’s proponents, after all, consider this the Christian thing to do. Their rationale is held up to the same cold, clarifying light as Richardson sheds on the cages of the “supermax”—but his “private for-profit prison,” unfortunately, isn’t a product of the imagination. The novel’s acknowledgements thank inmate writers like Mumia Abu-Jamal for their witness, and in the same way, Messiahs feels all too real as it describes the legal shenanigans behind the death sentence: “two detectives fed the facts to the confused and exhausted mind of the… mentally defective black boy.” As for the execution scene, its barbarity and compassion register with terrible vividness.
Yet the person getting the needle, in that late passage, isn’t the same as the “rower” with whom the book began. Messiahs often upsets expectation, using its imaginative premise as more than a platform for critiquing our broken justice system. The wrongfully convicted “boy” and the uncle who takes his place are both Black (as is the author, whose previous novel was an FC2 prizewinner), but the story spends an equal amount of time with an Asian family, moneyed and savvy, almost a Model Minority case. They, too, have a man in lockdown, as well as a potential proxy, a woman whose own tragedies render her sensitive to the African-American currently doing time. Neither she, nor he, are ever named; in what may be his riskiest experiment, Richardson identifies his players solely by their place in the family or their status under the law. Nonetheless, they convert the text’s grim materials to a love story. Their affair begins as correspondence and then, via machinations that provide the plot’s best surprises, helps to get the uncle released, where they set up house⎯ and hoist each other to joy:
…her knees spire above his head for her feet to perch on his shoulders, her feed slot to his mouth…, and… as his tongue muscles and circles the crease…, her eyes shut, rapt: a yellow eagle swoops down from a sun and seizes her….
Distant as such a passage seems from death row or dirty laws, in fact the lover’s embraces are described with a number of references to the inferno that surrounds them. The connections are subtly laid, a recurring image or a significant word, and in this regard typical of the entire unfolding tapestry, a marvel of close stitching, with glimmers you feel in your spine. If such texts are “experimental,” I’m eager to see what next comes out of the lab.